We all need Someone to Believe in and Something to Belong to

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” is the prescient opening line of the famous Charles Dickens’ historical novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, first published in 1889. It’s set in London and Paris during 1775-1792, as raging economic and political unrest lead directly to the American and French Revolutions.

The huge desire for nationalism is rearing its head again, but this time on a global basis. The two cities of London and Paris have again both been rocked by the tidal wave of popular political movements. The Brexit vote that devastated most Londoners has been closely followed by the astonishing triumph of Donald Trump in the USA. Paris was as rocked and shaken as much as London, but from nowhere came the young and charismatic Emmanuel Macron to win the presidency, but there was still a similar raging populist and nationalistic furore.

Seemingly Close but Dangerously Distant

In the same breath, one of the standard bearers of 20th century nationalism, Fidel Castro, left the stage that he strode so massively on for well over half a century. From a very personal point of view, like so many of my generation, Castro was an all-conquering hero to us in our youth. Yet he passed away as one of the most divisive of modern-day national leaders.

There was always something incredibly romantic about Castro, and even more so about his unbelievably photogenic partner in the revolution, the Argentinian, Che Guevara. The audacity of their resistance against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, leading to his eventual overthrow in 1959, is the stuff of heroes and legend.

The two of them became potent symbols of resistance and liberty. Many of us, consequently, and far too readily, turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to some of the horror stories of intimidation and human rights abuses that were taking place against his own people in Cuba. This was kept relatively silent and out of view, strongly aided and abetted by its near perfect isolation from the outside world.

I visited Cuba to see for myself for the first time in the late 1990’s. The neat and tidy, but rather plastic tourist resorts of Varadero were a pleasant front window. But just a bit further into the interior, there is a much more macabre and dark backdrop of poverty, restrictions on freedom, false promises, and abject racism for all to experience. I left despising all of it. And Havana, another of our ‘worst of times’ cities, was the most brutal experience of all.

At first sight, Old Havana with its charming but decrepit 16th century Spanish colonial architecture, was still rather attractive, but nothing much appeared to be working. Over 2 million people live crammed together in Havana. There were many distasteful experiences, but nothing more crushing than far too many beautiful young black girls ready to trade their young bodies for cash and favour.

This has bred a seedy sexual tourism industry that attracts many Europeans to this island of mesmerizing salsa music, the rhythmical exotic dancing and authentic bonhomie.

We now know that the long-held ‘American Dream’ is now in need of redefining for a new generation. But the Cuban dream which was so fixated on being all the things the American dream clearly ignored, now also needs urgent recalibrating.

It feels like “it was the best of times and the worst of times” again, in all of the cities I’ve mentioned.

Paradise Lost?

So back to Post-Brexit London. Spirits have not yet recovered since the momentous and shocking referendum vote on membership of the European Union. Followed by the seismic results of the US election, this has made most ‘pause and reflect’ on “what did we miss?” And so much was neglected or at best missed, from the economic divide allegedly fostered by the effects of globalisation to the growing discomfort with immigration.

As the move towards Brexit has started to badly unravel, it’s in times of adversity that we look for and demand inspirational leadership. However, it feels like we are at an all-time low, when it comes to the strong political global leaders who will have the vision and energy to heal some of the growing and worrying divides.

The global fracture growing around inequality and the alarming worry over immigration always leads to far too many people becoming more ‘inward-looking’ and isolationist. Populist leaders sense the opportunity and quickly blow oxygen on the anger of the masses and as we have experienced recently, they know they can and will say absolutely anything to get to high office. They deny the benefits of globalisation whilst whipping up strong feelings around ‘sovereignty’ and consequently, their borders.

The UK today has more foreigners running their big businesses than any other country in the world (over one third of FTSE100 CEOs vs 7% of Fortune100 CEOs according to Heidrick & Struggles). The numbers are both striking and remarkable.

This has instantly grabbed my attention. So why in these changing times is the leadership talent in the UK so unusually global? And what can we learn from the experiences of individual foreign leaders in UK business?

The diverse cultural mix of London is a huge and powerful pull.

Language, geography, and time-zone are central to the UK’s attractiveness to globally mobile talent. So, having many large international business stalwarts leads to a lack of big ‘national champions’ in business and reflect weaker domestic ties with government. This might well be a blessing in disguise, as it adds to a more external orientation.

This is very different to France, where national and many international businesses feel that they have no choice but to remain (too) close to government.

The UK’s comparatively small domestic market forces an external outlook and makes global outreach a central strategic imperative for all businesses of scale.

US businesses, by contrast, with a much larger domestic market, can remain considerably more national in their orientation and leadership.

Back in Victorian times, London made a point of ‘telling’ its new arrivals precisely how they should behave, how they must talk and what class they would be. This lack of tolerance of any difference could not be further away from what London stands for today.

Diversity of input is a vital consideration in itself, leading to more robust and better decision making.

Roughly 30% of Londoners were born and bred there. Roughly 30% of Londoners came from the rest of the UK to attempt to deliver their aspirations. And roughly another 30% vitally came from outside of the UK with one over-riding objective – to better themselves, no matter what. This special mix and special tolerance has created the most special result.

But this is no time for complacency, as most would say that London is the real jewel in the global crown for the UK. Not many other parts of the UK are quite as welcoming of outsiders and difference as London manifestly is. In fact, there are no other cities on Earth that are quite so global in their nature or outlook. New York is certainly an international city, but it is first and foremost an American city.

Positive Isolation is an Illusion

Whilst my context is a little biased (and maybe fixated) on the UK, or more honestly, London, the conclusions could be useful and applicable universally.

There are some inciteful lessons to be learned:

  • Treasure outsiders
  • Explain and share the benefits of being global
  • Find new and better ways to tell the story of globalisation
  • Commit resources to keeping the door open

By far the biggest lesson is to continue to treasure outsiders. It is paramount to embrace those who are different and with the huge added benefit of helping the UK better appeal to the diverse markets that its businesses serve.

To better learn how to explain, and share the benefits of being global. The strong sense that globalisation has created winners and losers in national populations is widespread, and not limited to the UK.

Business leaders have a grave responsibility to find new and better ways to tell the story of globalisation. They must help demonstrate that it works for the many, not merely the few.

In order to survive the real backlash against globalisation, it is imperative to commit resources to keeping the door open. The current febrile political environment will mean more bureaucracy and cost in attracting and retaining global talent. It is vital that businesses send out uncompromising signals that they will remain highly committed to attracting the best global leadership talent to London.

These are lessons that are applicable to many countries (including Cuba), where a new generation are ignoring national boundaries to make their skills and businesses opportunistically available to adjacent markets. Mutual trade is always the best way to cement better relationships with neighboring states.

There is a strange paradox in the UK – it appears to be able to entertain two quite different ideas simultaneously, one dynamically engaged with the world and the other in splendid isolation.

On reflection, perhaps part of the success of the ‘Leave’ campaigners at the Brexit referendum was that they offered both scenarios (the same could be said of President Trump), whilst the Remain (and Clinton) camps only emphasised the one narrative.

Britain is not alone with this dilemma. The histories of Japan, China, Russia and the USA, to name but a few prominent examples, all illustrate recent tensions between ‘dynamic engagement’ and ‘splendid isolation’.

This is where the interests of business and the interests of the emerging nationalist majorities will struggle to find common ground.

No nation can even think about surviving on its own. The harsh and brutal lessons of Cuba, North Korea and the old Soviet Union are all staring us in the face. Conversely, the countries that have recently opened themselves up, like China, Vietnam, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, have all benefitted hugely from this ‘dynamic engagement’ with the outside world.

Authenticity is Nothing Without Sincerity

President Trump continues to bark out his nationalistic and isolationist messages to his still roused and noisy following, He will say anything at all that will increase his popularity and secure the support of his sizeable base.

As we have seen with the Brexit leaders and Trump, who made outrageous promises – there doesn’t appear to be a day of reckoning. Is this the so called ‘post-truth’ world?

We all want and need something to belong to and someone to believe in. Our greatest leaders throughout history have always provided an inspired vision of the future, as they go on to serve and guide us towards it. This is what has established the so necessary spirit of ‘belonging’.

Nowadays, we have perhaps dangerously settled for ‘belonging’ to those who frighten us into following them, and the destination is never clear, as all their energy is spent on demeaning their opponents’ vision. Why would we want to follow a pessimist?

As positive patriotism moves dangerously into negative nationalism, solidarity is diverging into the distrust of minorities, who are nowadays almost present everywhere in growing numbers.

For differing reasons, London and Paris might just have that chance to change things for their people and give them something positive, vibrant and dynamic to belong to. We must remember that all successful contemporary national models for growth are based on collaboration not isolation.

This, as ever, will be a question of leadership – nothing more and nothing less, as collaboration is the new leadership.

As Winston Churchill beautifully reminds both Paris and London, and all of us, “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”.

The real question that we all need to ponder and ask ourselves again, do we really want to live in a society that practices splendid isolation or one of dynamic engagement?

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